October 1861: "I never saw such a sight and God grant I may never see such another."
Letter from Caspar Crowninshield to Harriet Sears Crowninshield, 22 October 1861
In this seven-page letter to his mother, Harriet Sears Crowninshield, Captain Caspar Crowninshield of the 20th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry describes in great detail his experiences on the field during the Battle of Ball's Bluff. Writing on 22 October 1861, the day after the battle, Crowninshield tells his mother that he and his men "stood firm and fought bravely" amid the confusion of the battle in which Union forces suffered large casualties. He also comments on witnessing the death of Colonel (Senator) Edward D. Baker, who "behaved with the utmost Courage and coolness all through the fight."
When the Civil War began, 23-year-old Caspar Crowninshield of Boston, an 1860 graduate of Harvard College with influential family and political connections, sought a commission in the cavalry, but when no opening appeared, he accepted a commission in the 20th Massachusetts Infantry. Although Crowninshield had no formal military training, he was an intelligent and resourceful officer and a keen-eyed observer and reporter of all that happened around him. He escaped the disaster at Ball's Bluff by swimming the Potomac and found himself in temporary command of his regiment; all the senior officers present had been killed, wounded, or captured.
Intended as a "slight demonstration" on the south bank of the Potomac, the Battle of Ball's Bluff was a cruel introduction to war and its blunders for soldiers from Massachusetts. Bay State soldiers had died in the Civil War before Ball's Bluff, but there for the first time they played a major role in a battle. Two Massachusetts regiments made up part of the reconnaissance of Confederate positions along the upper Potomac near Leesburg, Virginia: the 20th Infantry Regiment--known as the "Harvard Regiment" because of its well-educated, socially-elite officers--and the 15th Infantry, recruited primarily out of Worcester County, Massachusetts. From the outset, almost everything that could go wrong did. Ball's Bluff was a natural trap--the Northern soldiers formed at the top of a steep cliff with their backs to the Potomac River, with only a few small boats to move reinforcements to the south bank, and to rescue survivors after the Union rout.
The 15th and 20th Massachusetts Infantry regiments were all but destroyed in the battle, together losing more than 500 men, including 84 killed or mortally wounded. Losses in the 20th included two grandsons of patriot Paul Revere who were taken prisoner, and future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was wounded.
"The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862": A New Exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society
"The Purchase by Blood," an exhibition of letters, photographs, recruiting posters, broadsides, maps, and prints highlights seven young Massachusetts officers united by bonds of kinship and friendship. The seven include William Lowell Putnam who died at Ball's Bluff and represent a network of descendants of three prominent Massachusetts families who had grown up together, attended the same schools, and, during the Civil War, served--and died--together as officers of two famous Massachusetts regiments, the 2nd and 20th Infantry. The exhibition is free and open to the public 7 October 2011-January 2012, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM.
Sources for further reading
This letter is contained in the Charles Pickering Putnam papers. A more extensive collection of Caspar Crowninshield's Civil War correspondence and diaries form part of the Crowninshield-Magnus papers in the manuscript collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
The MHS Object of the Month for October 2011 also features this document with contextual information about the wider events of the Battle of Ball's Bluff, beyond Caspar Crowninshield's involvement.
Ballard, Ted. Battle of Ball's Bluff. Washington: Center of Military History, 2001. A "staff ride" guide to the battlefield.
Farwell, Bryan. Ball's Bluff: A Small Battle and Its Long Shadow. McLean, Virginia: EPM Publications, 1990.
Miller, Richard F. Harvard's Civil War: a History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2005.